Spelling variations: Haim, Chaim, Haym Avraham
Alternate names: Henri, Heinrich Abraham
Haim Abraham, my great-uncle, is remembered today as the husband of Sarah Aaronsohn, the NILI heroine. There is much more to his story however, and many of the so-called "facts" and unflattering descriptions that have appeared over the years in books about NILI are contradicted by the actual facts. Here is his story.
Early Life of Haim Abraham
* Haim's date of birth in the register of the Spanish Consulate in Constantinople ("Libro de Registros 1928-1930") is listed as May 10, 1879.
** Surprisingly, this same document has his place of birth as Athens, Greece.
Haim's 1939 Application for Palestinian Citizenship uses the same May 10th date and Athens as birth place, most likely because it was based on his Spanish citizenship records.
Rustchuk was a prosperous merchant city on the bank of the Danube River, across from the Romanian border. It was home to a well-to-do Jewish population which represented about 10% of the city's inhabitants.
Haim's parents died when he was still a young boy. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was twelve years old in February 1892. Twenty-one months later, his father passed away from the same disease. Haim, the eldest of four brothers, became an orphan at the age of fourteen.
After the death of thir parents, Haim and his three younger brothers - Moritz, Isak and Mony - were raised by their maternal grandparents, Salomon (Mony) Jakob and Rebecca and, occasionally, by their aunts.
The only document remaining from Haim's early years is a group portrait of the four Abraham brothers, taken two years after their parents' death.
Haim, Moritz, Isak and Mony Abraham, Rustchuk, 1896.
Haim Abraham, age 17, Rustchuk, 1896.
Belying their Sepharad, "Oriental" origin (Bulgaria was still attached to the Ottoman Empire), this photo shows how Westernized the Abraham brothers were; their clothes indicate that they belonged to the middle-class world of Jewish merchants that thrived in the late 19th century in Rustchuk.
Confirming the pull of the Western influence on the Abraham family is the fact that Haim was called "Henri" by relatives, and he called himself "Heinrich". Likewise, his brother Moshe called himself "Maurice" and "Moritz".
Haim received his early education in a school run by The Alliance Israélite Universelle. (This is mentioned by Haim in a speech he gave in 1910 where he denounced the pernicious influence of The Alliance on the Jewish youth in Constantinople, as quoted in the November 4, 1910 issue of l'Aurore.)
Haim received a good higher eduction and graduated from the highly regarded Rustchuk Gymnasium. The curriculum included as required subjects Bulgarian, German, French, Russian, History, Geography, Arithmetic, Geometry, Algebra, Physics, Chemistry, Natural Science, Psychology, Ethics, Calligraphy and Gymnastics.
Aside from Bulgarian, which was part of the required school curriculum in the late 1800's, Haim spoke Ladino - the traditional language of the Sepharad community in Rustchuk. He also spoke Hebrew, reportedly fluently. Haim spoke French and German too, and probably used these two languages primarily: French was the lingua franca of the educated people of the Levant, and German was required to conduct his business.
Indeed, surviving letters exchanged later with the Aaronsohn family show that Aaron Aaronsohn wrote to Haim in Hebrew, Haim replied in German while Sarah Aaronsohn wrote to him in French. Articles in the local Jewish press in the early 1900's describe Haim giving speeches in "Spanish" (Ladino) and Hebrew.
Rustchuk, Gymnasium for boys
After graduating from the Rustchuk Gymnasium, Haim was sent by his grandparents to study business in Düsseldorf, Germany. After finishing his studies, Haim returned to Rustchuk where he started his business career at a relatively young age.
Maccabi and Zionism
Haim's return to Rushchuk marks his first known involvement with Jewish and Zionist groups, involvement which would continue for the rest of his life.
Haim was one of the founders and the leader of the Rustchuk Maccabi, the Jewish Sports Association.
According to "Maccabi Bulgaria" (p44):
"On February 10th 1902 a group of youngsters founded the Maccabi Association in Ruse under the name "Jewish Association for Gymnastics and Music - Maccabi". In 1905, after a fierce internal struggle, the Association defined itself as a Zionist organization."
"Thanks to the active help of the Jewish community, which wholeheartedly supported the first organisation of its youths, thanks to the effective support of the World Zionist Organisation, to the enthusiasm of the youths' management and to the talent of its leader, Heinrich Abraham*, Maccabi expanded its ranks from 42 to 100 members within a year. During this year, the association held ten performances, designed its members' uniforms and inaugurated its flag."
*Note: Haim called himself "Heinrich" in Rustchuk after his return from Germany.
In December 1903, several Maccabi clubs from Bulgaria met in Sofia for their first national conference and Haim attended as the representant for the Rustchuk club.
David Rimon describes the 1903 conference:
"On December 25, 1903, the first national conference was held in Sofia, attended by Maccabi groups from Ruse, Plovdiv, Pazardzhik and Sofia. The Zionist Organization in Bulgaria sent a special representative to this conference to congratulate the Maccabi convention and to participate in it on its behalf."
"The conference was limited to preparing the ground for the founding of the association, and elected a central committee whose task was to determine the regulations of the national association, its name, etc. The following were elected to the committee: Leon Cohen (President), Yaakov Tager, Emanuel Nasimoff, Alexander Radbil (today the four of them are in Tel Aviv) and Rahamim Baruch. The management of the technical work was handed over to the branch in Ruse under the presidency of Haim Avraham (today he is in Haifa)."
The first national conference of Maccabi associations in Bulgaria (December 25-27, 1903).
Seated from right to left: Haim Abraham, Shabbat Borochov, David Kalev, Aharon Manoach. Standing: Rachamim Borochov, Molcho, Emanuel Nissimoff, Adv. Moshaiv, Aharon Danon".
Haim was about 24 years old when this photo was taken.
(Photo sources: "Maccabi Bulgaria", also in "HaMaccabi Be'Artzot HaBalkan" with caption above.)
The Bulgarian Maccabi was the most Zionist-leaning of the Jewish Sports organizations at the time, and in 1903, the year this photograph was taken, gymnasts from Bulgaria performed for the delegates of the Sixth Zionist Congress. It is quite likely that Haim attended the 1903 Congress with the Maccabi group. (Sarah Cohen Eldar mentioned that Haim had attended several Congresses, although I have only found evidence of his attending the 1913 Congress).
Haim Abraham, Rustchuk. March 16, 1903.
(Photo collection Iris Eldar Nir)
Signature on the back: "Heinrich Abraham", as Haim called himself then. March 16, 1903.
(Photo collection Iris Eldar Nir)
Nothing more is known about Haim's early life in Rustchuk.
In the Summer of 1908, at the age of 29, Haim left Rustchuk and came to Constantinople with his younger brother Moritz.
Together they formed an import/export company called "Abraham Frères" which sold a variety of small manufactured products from Germany and neighboring countries, such as razor blades, iron padlocks, shoe polish and paper envelopes all over the Levant.
The earliest mentions of the company date from 1908, altough it's possible that their business may have predated their arrival in Constantinople.
Abraham Freres, letterhead, 1918.
The business was successful, and Haim and Moritz were variously described as "prosperous merchants" or "well-to-do importers". My grandfather Moritz, for whom there is much more information, led a bourgeois life, first in Constantinople, then later in Düsseldorf. There is no reason to doubt that Haim's condition and standards of living were inferior in any ways.
The import business required frequent travel to Germany and to central European countries, often taking Haim away from Constantinople for a month at a time.
With the Maccabi in Constantinople.
Soon after his arrival in Constantinople, Haim joined the leadership of the Maccabi group, and became the Vice-President of the Central Committee
The Maccabi Sports Organization of Constantinople (originally known as the "Israelitischer Turnverein Konstantinopel" - the Israelite Gymnastic Association of Constantinople) had been founded in 1895 by Jews of German and Austrian extraction who had been rejected from participating in other sport clubs because of their Jewish origin. It was the first Jewish sports club.
In "HaMaccabi Be'Artzot HaBalkan" (The Maccabi in Balkan States), p96, David Rimon wrote:
"A few weeks after the Young Turks revolution [July 1908], the brothers Haim Abraham and Moritz Abraham, members of Maccabi Rustchuk in Bulgaria, came to Constantinople. The brothers immediately went to work and devoted much of their time and energy to the development of the association."
"At the same time, Dr Israel Auerbach, the representative in Turkey of the German Jewish "Ezra" society ["Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden"] and a reporter of the official Zionist weekly "Die Welt" also arrived in Constantinople. Dr Auerbach, who prior to his arrival in Constantinople had been the president of "Bar Kochba" in Berlin (Jüdischer Turnverein Bar Kochba Berlin - the first Jewish gymnastics club) and the president of the Association of Jewish Gymnastics Societies in Germany, as well as the editor of the journal "Jüdische Turnzeitung", joined the management of the Maccabi association in Constantinople and contributed his talent and extensive experience in both the organisational and technical fields".
[...] "Under the influence of a few Zionists who were in Constantinople at that time, the Jews launched an internal propaganda for nationalism and Zionism. Among these Zionist influencers were Dr. David Marcus, rabbi of the Ashkenazi community, and Dr. Victor Jacobson, a representative of the Zionist General Council in Constantinople and director of the Anglo-Levantine Bank. [...] A few months after the [July 1908 Young Turk] Revolution, Ze'ev Jabotinsky came to Constantinople. The influence of these Zionist leaders led by Jabotinsky, as well as the two Maccabis who came from Bulgaria [Haim ("Heinrich") and Moritz Abraham], caused a complete change in the character of the "Israeli Gymnastics Association", which in September 1908 already enacted a "national" [read "Zionist"] constitution."
According to Roman Sinkovsky's "Jewish German gymnastic system in Turkey until 1918":
"In 1908 the Israelitischer Turnverein changed its name to the national-Jewish "Maccabi". This renaming act followed naturally after the general assembly on May 25th 1908 when the club announced, for the very first time publicly, its national-Jewish conviction. This proposal originated by H. Abraham who declared that he was willing to hold his position [vice chairman] only in a national-Jewish turnverein."
Sarah Cohen Eldar recalled:
"Haim, during this chapter of his life, invented Hebrew terms for gymnastics commands."
Although not naming Haim, the following confirms the creation of Hebrew terms. Sinkovsky:
"Starting in May 1910 the gymnastic units were given in Hebrew and the club started organizing obligatory lessons of Hebrew for the members. The goal was the support of the national-Jewish idea and the prevention of the lingual and gymnastic-technical misunderstandings. The Maccabi Constantinopel was the first national-Jewish club to use Hebrew."
"Several Hebrew speaking men of Constantinople participated in creating the gymnastic terminology which was then sent to Jaffa (Palestine) for an appraisal."
Maccabi organized many excursions, trips, sports celebrations and cultural events.
In the Spring of 1910, the Maccabi association travelled by ship to Kuzguncuk, a neighborhood of Constantinople on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and gave a presentation of gymnastics in front of a large crowd. Also present were high-ranking army officers. At the end of their exhibition, they marched and sang the Hatikva.
David Rimon, p101:
"H. Chaim Avraham, one of the leaders of the Maccabi in Constantinople and its living spirit, took the stage and explained to the crowded audience the goals of the Maccabi and the benefits of physical education, and at the end of his remarks he congratulated the new branch of Maccabi that was founded in this suburb on the same day."
"His speech made a great impression on those gathered who enthusiastically cheered [...]"
On July 17-19, 1910, the 4th Maccabi Congress took place in Varna, Bulgaria. The Constantinople club sent thirty or so members to participate, led by Haim Abraham and three other representatives. L'Aurore, a Jewish weekly from Constantinople, wrote:
"[...] it was pure euphoria when Mr. Haim Abraham spoke on behalf of our maccabists - first in Hebrew and then in Spanish [Ladino - DA]. He knew how to express such feelings that the applause erupted at the end of each one of his sentence."
In September 1910, El Tiempo, the Ladino publication opposed to Zionism, wrote an article attacking the Maccabi organization because of its Zionist leanings, focusing in particular on a speech given by Haim Abraham. In response, the Maccabi organization initiated a lawsuit against that publication, as reported by L'Aurore.
(Revisit order of events)
In the fall of 1910, tensions between the traditional, anti-Zionist, Jewish establishment of Constantinople led by Chief Rabbi Nahum and the Zionist minority escalatated into a public fight after Haim gave a fiery speech attacking "assimilationists" during a Maccabi meeting in October 1910.
L'Aurore, the pro-Zionist publication published excerpts of Haim's speech in response to Rabbi Nahum's letter to the newspaper where he expressed his ire at what had transpired during the meeting, being "contrary to the interests of Ottoman Judaism".
I include the entire text because, more than one hundred years after the fact, it finally gives us a chance to hear Haim speak. With so much written about him, this speech offers a fascinating view of his activism.
"... As long as we do not remove the management of our schools from the hands of the French Jewish assimilator associations [Alliance Israelite Universelle], our greatest desire to see our people one day speak our own language, Hebrew, will remain a dream, an unrealizable desire and a pure fantasy.
"In our Maccabi association, members are recruited among young people who leave schools that are run and led by assimilators. After these schools have struck and bruised every hint of natural national feeling in the child, having raised the child in a wrong and pernicious way for our Jewish national existence, it is natural that, out of these young children, who are becoming our members and will one day be the leaders of our institutions, we won't be able to make conscientious Jews who will be up to their duty to our nation, for they lack national Jewish education and instruction. And without this necessary factor, all the external work of Jewish cultural societies will remain pointless and bear no results.
"In addition to all these difficulties that we have to overcome, there are large so-called Jewish societies that create obstacles for us at every step. Our central organization had wished to hold a party during Passover in a Jewish setting; and it was also intended to fulfill the desire of our spiritual leader [Rabbi Nahum], expressed on various occasions, to hold our festivals in worthy and suitable places. To this end, our organization asked the management of the Balat boys' school for the use of the courtyard for half a day during which there was no class. This was categorically refused to us, although, a few weeks before, the same management had granted its premises and its courtyard to a group of Muslims to give theatrical performances.
"This conduct on the part of Alliance schools is also evident in Hasksuy and other suburbs. I too received my first education in one of these schools, as did all these Maccabists who were and still are their students. And yet, they close their doors to us, their former students, and make any Jewish cultural work twice as difficult for us.
"It is unfortunate that some of our brothers do not know either Hebrew or German to read everything that is currently being written in the Jewish newspapers of the West about the famous book of the vice president of l'Alliance Israélite Universelle of Paris, this book in which Salomon Reinach [Vice-President of Alliance Israelite Universelle; attacked by Zionists as an assimilationnist, see wikipedia] allowed himself to say that Judaism is neither a religion, nor a race, nor a nation, nor a "misfortune", to use the expression of Heinrich Heine. Sadder still is that some of our brothers are content to read only the nonsense of a national traitor of Galata [Owner? or journalist? of El Tiempo], to judge our salutary work from his harmful writings."
"Our assimilating brothers in Paris [l'Alliance Israelite Universelle], who unfortunately still show us the way forward, have gradually begun to understand that the assimilative education they have given us so far has been wrong and bankrupt. And since the new regime [1908 Young Turk Revolution] where every nation seeks to develop and emancipate itself, they have gone into complete bankruptcy with their false policies.
"This is why any national Jew, who understands in its true sense what the term national Jew means [Zionism], must consider it his duty, at every opportunity that presents itself, to enlighten his brothers in error and to teach them bring back to the true path. As soon as our people will understand which way they must go, so soon will we be saved from our endless decadence and consumption in galuth."
A brief dispatch in l'Aurore dated October 28, 1910, mentions Haim and describes his role as "Vice-President of the Central Committee".
L'Aurore, October 28, 1910.
Another brief dispatch in l'Aurore, this one dated June 6, 1911, shows Haim was elected as the manager of the Pera section.
L'Aurore, June 6, 1911.
The next artefacts relating Haim and Maccabi are a few photos dated 1916.
"Maccabi Group excursion - Constantinople, 1916". Haim, bearded, stands on the far right.
"Jewish Sport group excursion - Constantinople, 1916". Haim, with a beard, is second from the right in the middle row.
I had long assumed that the date was incorrect because I believed Maccabi had stopped operating at the onset of WW1; however it appears that the main Pera branch continued its activities during the war. In addition, I thought the photos had to be anterior to 1914, when Haim had cut his beard after his marriage in the spring of 1914, and Sarah Aaronsohn had written in August 1916 that Haim had been away in Germany for "almost two years". It's possible that Haim grew his beard back after Sarah left and did manage to come back to Constantinople.
However, two articles in Hamenora, the publication of the B'nai Brith lodge, provide clues about outdoors activities with Maccabi, making the 1916 date credible. One, dating from July-August 1924 states:
"[...] Until the Great War our work was limited to so-called indoor gymnastics - apparatus and group movements. [...] Outdoor sport was gaining ground everywhere and imposing new guidelines on us."
"Already, during the war, we made the attempt at scouting. Our numerous, well equipped, excellently trained 'Drorim' were, for years, our pride. [...] we added [...] the practice of outdoor sports, athletics in its most modern expression."
"Our football section, already existing before the war, saw its ranks grow and the Macecabi selection managed to rank first in the Constantinopolitan tournament called "Sundays", for the 1921-1922 season. "
Another article in the February 1925 issue of the same publication implies that soccer and scoutism both started after the beginning of WW1:
"The cataclysm of the World War was soon to paralyze this beautiful activity. [...] Other technical branches were soon to be added to apparatus gymnastics: I mean the "Sénif Kadour Réguel" or Football as well as the Drorim or Scouts Section.
The last mention of Haim's role with Maccabi appears in the February 1925 issue of Hamenora, the monthly publication of B'nai Brith, Oriental District XI. The speech given on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Jewish sports association of Constantinople is reproduced in the magazine and ends with a mention about the four "vailant pioneers" of the organisation. It's not clear however if Haim still took an active part in the group by then.
Hamenora, February 1925
"[...] I do myself an honor to thank our valiant pioneers: MM. M. ABRAMOWITZ, HAYM AVRAHAM, ALBERT ZIFFER and JACQUES M. BARZILAI for the long years of labor devoted to our work. Your names and your memory are forever etched in letters of gold in the annals of the Maccabi.
In her memoirs, Sarah Eldar recalled that
"[Haim] had very good relations with many Zionist leaders of Germany and Eastern Europe, and the Palestinian Rahel Yanait-Ben Zvi, Hana Maizel. On the other hand he had criticism for the behaviour and habits of the Yishuv leaders, although he admired Haim Arlozorof [...]. He also liked Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, and was against David Ben Gurion.
What is fascinating is that the people listed here belonged to the entire spectrum of Zionist tendencies, from Marxist and Socialist to right-wing revisionism. One must conclude that, above all, Haim's focus was on Zionist activism, without much concern for any other underlying considerations. What all these names seem to have in common is the rejection of the so-called territorialist option, along with a focus on direct activism. Also to be noted is the presence of a couple of feminist women, in stark contrast to his future portrayal as a backward "Oriental" man.
- Haim Arlozorof was a Socialist Zionist leader of the Yishuv who would later be assassinated, most likely by an extreme-right Jew.
- Ze'ev Jabotinsky, at the other end of the political spectrum, was the leader of the right-wing Revisionist Zionists. He would establish Betar and the Irgun and would be an inspiration for Menahem Begin
- Rahel Yanait-Ben Zvi was a labor (left-wing) activist who founded "The Educational Farm" in Jerusalem, a farm that provided agricultural education for women. Active in the Haganah paramilitary organization, she also organized the clandestine aliyah of immigrants through Syria and Lebanon. She was the wife of the second President of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.
- Hana Maizel, another woman, was a a noted agronomist, a founder of Havat HaAlamot, a women's agricultural training program at Kibbutz Kinneret in 1911, and of the agricultural school for girls at Nahalal. A member of Poale Zion (a Marxist-Zionist Jewish workers movement), she made a considerable contributions to the feminist wing of the Zionist movement. She would later be elected to the Assembly of Representatives.
I assume that Haim got to know many of these Zionist leaders through his activities with Maccabi, as Zionist leaders often attended Maccabi congresses and demonstrations.
For example, David Rimon writes:
"In October 1908, a national society of Turkish Jews called "Achava" (אחוה) was founded by the Zionists in Constantinople. The Israeli Gymnastics Association joined this society. At the founding meeting of the Achava, Jabotinsky delivered an enthusiastic Zionist speech."
Rimon also mentions that, at the end of 1908, when Haim and Moritz had already joined the leadership of Maccabi in Constantinople,:
"[...] more than a hundred members of [Maccabi Bulgaria] went on a propaganda trip to [...] Constantinople in Turkey. [...] During their visit to Constantinople, members of Maccabi Bulgaria were invited by the Turkish authorities to participate in a celebratory military parade. One of the gymnastics performances of Maccabi-Bulgaria members was held in honor of the leaders of the Zionist movement, David Wolfson, Nahum Sokolov and Menachem Ussishkin, who were in Constantinople at the time on an important political mission."
In her memoirs, Sarah Eldar recalled that Haim attended, "if not as a delegate, as a spectator" some of the Zionist Congresses. I believe his participation may have been more than just as a mere spectator, considering that Maccabi took part in (at least some of) the congresses.
In September 1913, Haim was in Vienna and attended the XI Zionist Congress, probably as part of his role with Maccabi. 1,450 gymnasts participated in a mass display of Jewish Gymnasts during the Congress. He sent a commemorative card to "Rivka", his sister-in-law, in Hebrew.
Postcard from Vienna - Sept 4, 1913.
Postcard from Vienna addressed to Riwka Abraham - Sept 4, 1913.
As reported in the Jewish weekly L'Aurore, Haim gave a speech in celebration of Eliezer Ben Yehuda's 50th* birthday in October 1910. Ben Yehuda led the revival of Hebrew as a modern, spoken language. (*Ben Yehuda was born in 1908, so the 50th birthday was off by two years).
Haim's company, Abraham Freres, appears on a list of donors to the Jewish National Fund for 1908 and 1910. Although the donations appear small, they are notable for being the only donor from Constantinople in 1908.
Other Jewish Activities.
According to a certificate dated September 22, 1913, Haim belonged to the B'nai B'rith Grand Lodge District XI, the jurisdiction of which covered Egypt, the Balkans and all Ottoman lands including Palestine.
"Notables of the Jewish Community in Constantinople", date unknown. Haim, bearded, standing on the far right.
Note the button on the lapel of Haim's jacket, also worn by three other men - maybe a B'nai brith pin?
Haim travelled to Palestine in the Spring of 1913, as evidenced by two postcards sent to Ronya ("Rivka"), one mailed from Jerusalem, the other from Jaffa.
The reasons for this trip are not known, whether business-related, or connected to his Zionist activities and leanings. It is probable that he met his future wife Sarah Aaronsohn at that time.
Two postcards from Haim Abraham to Ronya Datnowsky, 1913.
Both postcards are very brief: "Shalom Rav (lachem), Haim Abraham" - "Many Blessings (to you), Haim Abraham." (Note that the address is simply "Abraham Freres, Constantinople." It's not clear why he addressed these postcards to his sister-in-law and not to his brother.
As already noted, in September 1913, Haim was in Vienna and attended the XI Zionist Congress.
Marriage to Sarah Aaronsohn
If Haim is remembered outside of his family, it is for having wed Sarah Aaronsohn, the NILI spy, the "Jewish Joan of Arc".
According to Sarah Cohen Eldar's testimony, Haim was introduced to Sarah Aaronson through Dr. Israel Auerbach who was a friend of the Aaronson family. Auerbach - a prominent member of the Jewish community in Berlin and Constantinople - was the brother-in-law of Ronya who was married to one of Haim's brothers - Moritz.
(Haim Abraham and Israel Auerbach had probably met in 1908 when they both arrived in Constantinople and joined the management of the Maccabi association.)
It is also possible that Haim had already heard about the Aaronsohn family through his sister-in-law (and my grandmother) Ronya, who had visited the Aaronsohns in Zichron Yaakov in 1910/1911.
According to Israel Auerbach, Haim had said he wanted "a girl from one of the real pioneers" that had settled Palestine.
According to the official Aaronsohn lore, Sarah had agreed to the union without even meeting Haim. However, we don't know Haim's version, and it is clear that the oft-repeated "official" version, being one-sided, is probably not the entire story.
The Aaronsohn family with Haim Abraham in Zichron Yaakov.
Haim Abraham and Sarah Aaronsohn were married on the grounds of the Athlit station, under a velvet canopy on March 31st, 1914 (4 Nissan 5674).
Sarah Cohen Eldar: "They [Haim and Myriam?] used to say that [Haim] financed Sarah's dowry."
Wedding, March 1914
Wedding announcement, Hapoel Hatzair. April 6, 1914.
(Photo source: Historical Jewish Press)
Sarah Haim Abraham.
After the wedding, Haim and Sarah went to Haifa where they boarded a ship to Constantinople.
Sarah Aaronsohn and Haim as young married couple.
(Photo courtesy of Sarah Cohen Eldar)
In this photo, Haim is hardly recognizable without his beard. He now looks just like his brother Moritz.
The couple lived in Haim's appartment in Galata, a neighborhood in the European half of Constantinople.
Soon after their marriage, WW1 began.
The marriage wasn't happy and wouldn't last - one even wonders why Sarah even decided to wed a man she did not know well, if at all, and with whom she was apparently not in love. The explanation usually offered by authors is that she felt obligated to get married so her younger sister Rivka could marry the man they both loved, Avshalom Feinberg.
The reality may be a little less simplistic. It seems that Sarah was an impulsive person who could make irrational choices; she may also have found the idea of marrying a wealthy businessman attractive.
However, the life she found in Constantinople didn't match her expectations, and it soon became clear to her that she and Haim were not meant to be together. She became homesick, if not downright depressed, as attested by her letters from the summer of 1915.
She also began to worry about her family who was suffering under the Turkish rule. But probably the main reason for her change of heart was learning that Avshalom Feinberg had not married her sister Rivka after all. Rather, she had gone to America, and Avshalom now wrote to Sarah that she was the one he wanted.
In the second half of August 1915, while Haim was away on a business trip to Germany and Vienna, Sarah started making arrangements to leave Constantinople and to return to her family in Zichron. She finally left on November 25, 1915, officially voicing her intention to return to Constantinople after a few months.
After returning to Zichron, Sarah wrote letters to Haim promising to come back after a few months. She asked him for money, saying she would be back for the Passover, or after she'd finished helping her family. Whether she had originally intended to come back after a few months, then changed her mind after meeting Avshalom Feinberg again, or whether she had run away with no intention of ever coming back, is not clear. It seems, however, that Haim expected at first that she would return.
Sarah, of course, joined her brother's NILI spy organization to which she now devoted her life. There are no indications that Haim was ever aware of her involvement or of the existence of NILI.
As the separation dragged on, he may have slowly realized that this wouldn't be the case after all. He must have been feeling disenchanted, and may have felt used: he apparently resisted Sarah's requests for money. At some point he considered selling the land that he had received as part of her dowry. He probably had concluded by then that there was no point in coming to Zichron if their relationship was obsolete.
At the same time, Aaron Aaronsohn continued to be close with Haim. Although he was upset about Sarah's unhappy marriage - for which Haim was universally blamed in the Aronsohn camp - he continued to correspond with Haim, acting as if nothing was wrong.
It is more than likely that this was an interested decision on Aaron's part. He reached out to Haim when he needed to borrow money; he probably took advantage of Haim's ability to send letters between Germany and Turkey during the war to relay his own messages. He may also have gathered bits of information through conversations with Haim and his brothers Moritz and Mony, as they all had a large number of contacts with the industrial, political and diplomatic world.
(See a sample of calling cards from Haim's brother Moritz.)
Even Avshalom Feinberg, despite his awkward position, did not hesitate to contact Haim when he needed help. Once again, it is not clear how aware Haim was, if at all, of Avshalom's role in Sarah's running away, and whether Haim ever felt he was being used.
With the teasing words from both Avshalom and Aaron included in a letter from Sarah (January 23rd, 1916), Haim would have had to be blind to not understand or guess what was going on:
Aussitot échappée elle n'a fait qu'un bond
Et je vous jure: vous ne la verrez plus de longtemps
Le ciel hivernal est redevenu clair et blond
Merci à Constantinople de cet extra-Printemps
Ceci veut dire qu'on te permettra de venir la voir - et encore, c'est-à-dire si tu es bien gentil. Mais quant à te t'envoyer (sic) Sarati, tu ne dois plus y compter: on l'aime bien trop ici.
Absalom qui est la bonté personnifiée m'a reproché de t'avoir dit ce qui est ci-dessus de peur que tu ne maigrisses et deviennes encore plus rouge.
As soon as she had escaped, she made just one leap
And I swear to you: you will not see her again for a long time
The winter sky has turned clear and blond again
Thank you Constantinople for this extra Spring
A.F. [Avshalom Feinberg]
This means that we will let you to come see her - and again, that is, only if you are very nice. But as for sending you our Sarati [Sarah] back, don't count on it anymore: we like her too much here.
Avshalom - who is goodness personified - reproached me for telling you the above, lest you lose weight and become even redder in the face.
A. [Aaron Aronsohn]
At the same time, it is unlikely that he was aware of Aaron's real activities at that point, so the question remains why Haim continued to be on friendly terms with the Aaronsohns and to offer his help when asked.
Haim also sent money [1000 German marks, equivalent to about $4000 in 2009] to help the Jewish community in Palestine suffering from the Turkish repression during the war.
This gift was mentioned in a letter from Sarah to her brother Aaron (August 23 1916), but instead of showing some appreciation for the gift, she displayed scorn.
"What do you say of his generosity? How it amused me. If the poor man knew how many thousands of pounds pass through my hands, and how many thousands of francs I spend, what would he say?"
Because of the war raging in Europe, it had become too difficult for Haim to run his business from Turkey, and he had temporarily relocated in Germany where he would spend a couple of years.
Based on correspondance between Haim and Aron Aaronsohn, Haim was apparently based for a while out of a hotel in Elberfeld, Germany. Haim's letter to Aaronsohn dated October 5 1916 included the following stamp:
Haim Stamp, Elberfeld, 1916.
From Hause Abraham Freres, Konstantinopel
Elberfeld, Hotel Europaisher Hof
The fact that Haim had a stamp made mentioning "Abraham Freres" with the hotel name suggests that he probably had a long-term arrangement there. Probably not incidently, Elberfeld was the location of at least one of Abraham Freres suppliers, Paulmann & Kellermann.
According to a letter from Sarah, Haim was in Germany for almost two years, and moved to Hagen, Westphalia (Germany), from where it was easier to communicate and conduct business with Constantinople. (Note: Hagen, and not The Hague in the Netherlands, as stated incorrectly by all authors.)
Haim was in Hagen, Westphalia (Germany), as evidenced by surviving correspondance sent by Haim to Abraham Freres in 1917. Abraham Freres did business with a number of companies based in Hagen (Lersch & Kruse, H Münzing Spedition), so just like with Elberfeld, it seems that Haim based himself close to his suppliers.
In a letter to her brother Aaron, Sarah says that Haim
"(he) has lost a lot of weight in the latest German fashion. He works hard and suffers from our being separated. He tells me how much he would like us to meet again."
Sarah was eventually captured and tortured by the Turks, commiting suicide in October 1917.
1920's - 1930's
At the end of 1922, a dispute arose between Haim and his brother Moritz, and the Abraham Freres partnership was disolved.
Very little is known about Haim during the following decade. He continued to do business between Germany and Turkey, now operating on his own.
Haim remarried in Constantinople, to Myriam Franco (born in Constantinople, August 1889). The date of this second marriage would have been between 1917 (death of Sarah Aaronsohn) and 1925 (the February 1925 issue of Hamenora, the B'nai Brith monthly, lists "Haym Avraham and Mrs Haym Avraham" as guests of a banquet celebrating the 30th anniversary of Maccabi.) On the couple's 1939 application for citizenship Myriam's nationality before her marriage was listed as Italian.
Sarah Cohen Eldar: "Myriam Franco had relatives in Turkey. One brother was an engineer who used to work in a big international infrastructure/construction company (roads)".
Haim's name appears in the 1928-1930 Registry Book of the Spanish Consulate in Constantinople, suggesting that he was either under the protection of the Spanish Consulate or held a Spanish passport by then.
|Registry Book 1928-1930|
|Family Name||Given Name||Name of Parents||Date of Birth||Place of Birth||Profession||Registry Date|
|Abram Yacob||Hayim||Mamo and Lea||10 May 1879||Athens||Merchant, Seh Davut h. in Tahtakale||18 Sept 1928|
His business address was: Seyh Davud Han, Tahtakale street.
Spanish Consulate Register 1929.
(Photo courtesy of Pablo Martín Asuero)
Haim, ca 1928.
(Photo courtesy of Pablo Martín Asuero)
At the time of his brother Isak's death in December 1931, Haim's business was still located at the same address: Seyh Davud Han, Tahtakale street ("Tahtakale Cheich Daou'd Han.")
Haim and Myriam immigrated to Palestine on August 31st, 1932. They lived in Bat Galim in Haifa, a wealthy neighborhood with Bauhaus-designed private homes.
Haim continued to to run an import business between Germany and Turkey, under the name "House Abraham".
Sarah Cohen Eldar: "He continued his commerce, importing meat from Turkey (?). Myriam was always worried they wouldn't have means for existence, and so they kept four or five gold bars in a home safe."
"In Haifa, Haim remained active in the Bulgarian-Turkish Community. He also tried to preserve the Rustchuk traditions of prayers and way of life. In typical German tradition, he also spent time in coffee houses and befriended Polish and German Jews."
Haim and Myriam's Application for Palestinian citizenship in July 1939 provides a few additional details.
Haim had taken four trips out of Palestine in 1937, with three almost month-long absences in July, August and September, for a total of 80 days in the year. I assume these were business trips to visit European suppliers. No more exit visas were recorded after September 1937, possibly indicating that he stopped or at least slowed down his commercial activities around 1938.
One of the documents attached to his file asks for clarification: "[...] whether the applicant is a Spanish citizen or a Spanish protected person". The answer attached to the document states that "According to his Spanish passport he is described as a National of Spain. He declares that he is a Spanish citizen."
Haim Abraham, 1939
(Photo source: Citizenship application)
According to Ran Aaronsohn, Aron Aaronsohn's grand-nephew, Haim remained in contact with the Aaronsohn family, visiting the widow of Schmuel Aaronsohn (Aaron's youngest brother) in the early 1950's.
Ran Aaronsohn: "Haim used to visit my grandma Myriam, Shmuel's widow, in Haifa, where [my parents] met him and his second wife between 1950 and 1953. They remember that they were impressed by his good manners and kindness. [...] My grandpa passed away in spring 1950."
(Photo source: "The Bulgarians from Haifa")
Aside from his house in Bat Galim, Haim and his wife Myriam owned a piece of land located on 8 Bialik Street. The British oil company Shell made a generous offer to purchase the lot, but his answer was "I refuse to sell this property to strangers!" He was then approached by the leaders of the Bulgarian Community who convinced him to donate the property for a synagogue. Upon his approval, they established the "Association of the Trustees of Beit Haim Abraham" ("Agudat Ne'emanei Beit Haim Abraham") in August 1945. The association then struggled to raise sufficient money to build the synagogue, causing delays to the actual construction.
(Photo source: "The Bulgarians from Haifa")
Haim died on January 17, 1954 (Shvat 13 5714), and never saw the conclusion of the construction of the building. In his will, Haim donated all his money to various charities in Haifa and to Beit Haim Abraham.
Beit Haim Abraham, Haifa. The Community Center for Bulgarian immigrants in Haifa, named after Haim.
(Photo source: "The Bulgarians from Haifa")
His wife Myriam died on December 12, 1958 (Tevet 1 5719).
Memorial plaques in the Beit Haim Abraham Synagogue
(Photo source: "The Bulgarians from Haifa")
In Everlasting Memory
To the Great Activist
Of Great Deeds and Actions
Generous Founder and Manager of the Association
Haim Avraham of Blessed Memory
Died on Shvat 13 5714
In Everlasting Memory
To Our Dear Myriam Haim Abraham
Wife of the Generous Haim Abraham
Died on Tevet 1 5719
- Special Thanks:
- Sarah Cohen Eldar, Iris and Yaakov Nir, for making her journal available, answering my many questions and providing photos.
- Dr. Gilad Rosenberg, for additional information, photos and translations, and for the copy of David Rimon's book "HaMaccabi Be'Artzot HaBalkan".
- Michael Rosenberg, for the copy of the book "The Bulgarians from Haifa".
- Beit Aaronsohn, for access to the Aaronsohn/Abraham correspondence.
- Ran Aaronsohn, for sharing his family's recollections of Haim Abraham.
- Pablo Martín Asuero, for providing me with copies of the 1928-1930 Registry of the Spanish Consulate in Constantinople.
- Rony Dror, from the Yosef Yekutieli Maccabi Sports Archive.
- References and Publications:
- Journal. Unpublished.
- Jüdische Turnbewegung - Jewish German Gymnastic System in Turkey until 1918" (pdf - link). Journal of Human Sciences, Vol 6, No 2 (2009)
- "HaMaccabi Be'Artzot HaBalkan" (The Maccabi in Balkan States). 1945 .
- Maccabi Bulgaria. Committee in honor of Albert Kioso, 1976 .
- Jüdische Turnzeitung 1900-1921. Neuhrsg. (1977). Walluf/Neudeln. Sändig .
- "Zionism, Nationalism and the Emergence of the Judische Turnerschaft". Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook - 1983. .
- The Bulgarians from Haifa. Ass. of Beit Haim Abraham Trustees. 1998.
- Diary (Yoman Aaron Aaronsohn: 1916-1919, Tel Aviv. Karni. 1970) Beit Aaronsohn (French text original).
- The Nili Spies. Hogarth Press, London, 1959.
- The Gideonites. Funk and Wagnalls. New York, 1968.
- A Spy for Freedom. E. P. Dutton & Co., Lodestar, 1984.
- The Aaronsohn Saga. Gefen Publishing House Ltd, 2007 (original Hebrew version: 2000).
- A Strange Death. Public Affairs, 2005.
- Lawrence and Aaronsohn. Penguin, 2007.
- Aaronsohn's Maps. Harcourt, 2007.